Whitehead fans slam McCullough’s “The Wright Brothers” [Stamford Advocate]

May 13, 2015

Article as it appeared in the Stamford Advocate

These have become dark days for the aviation historians and others who have maintained that Gustave Whitehead, of Bridgeport, flew a heavier-than-air airship more than two years before the Wright brothers’ first flight on Dec. 17, 1903.

Last month, the publication “Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft” pulled back slightly from its 2013 stance backing Whitehead’s flight.

Now, in what’s seen as the latest blow to Whitehead’s legacy, famed historian David McCullough, the recipient to two Pulitzer prizes, dismisses the Whitehead claim in his book released last week, “The Wright Brothers.”

Of the claim, McCullough writes: “The story was entirely without evidence and wholly untrue, but kept drawing attention as the years passed to the point where Orville felt obliged to denounce it himself. (Orville) made it plain that Whitehead was a man of delusions.”

All of this comes against the backdrop of the state legislatures of Ohio — home to the Wright brothers — and Connecticut passing legislation proclaiming different versions of aviation history.

It’s expected that Ohio will soon pass a measure declaring, in part, that “Gustave Whitehead did not fly a powered, heavier-than-air machine of his own design on August 14, 1901, nor on any other date.”

Meanwhile, Connecticut state Sen. State Sen. Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford, has introduced a bill to the General Assembly establishing Gustave Whitehead First in Flight Day to commemorate the disputed belief that Whitehead first flew an airplane.

Gov. Dannel Malloy said that on Aug.14, the Nutmeg State will celebrate Powered Flight Day in Whitehead’s honor.

Whitehead built his own home on Alvin Street in Fairfield, where he lived for many years. It was razed on April 28, 2014, after preservationists failed to block the demolition.

McCullough, in a telephone interview with Hearst Connecticut Media, was adamant that there is “no question at all that what the Wright brothers did had never been done by anybody.”

“The fact is that these two men who never finished high school, who had no financial backing, who had no political pull and who had very little money, did it all on their own,” McCullough said. “It’s a great American story.”

But critics of the acclaimed historian are saying he didn’t do his homework when it came to Whitehead.

Lack of research

McCullough, 81, is collaborating with actor and producer Tom Hanks on an HBO miniseries on the Wright brothers. The author speaks highly of Tom Crouch, the senior curator of aeronautics at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum, a staunch defender of the Wright brothers’ legacy — and for years a sore point for those in the Whitehead camp.

Crouch assisted McCullough in his research.

“Tom Crouch is a first-rate man and there’s no more knowledgeable scholar on aviation that I know of,” the author said.

As for his single paragraph in “The Wright Brothers” on Whitehead, McCullough said that it likened the Whitehead story to bizarre conspiracy theories.

“There some people who say that we didn’t land on the moon and that Oswald never killed Kennedy,” he said. “There’s really nothing to it.”

Whitehead’s supporters say McCullough should have looked into the Connecticut claim a bit more before dismissing it so quickly.

“This all looks like Tom Crouch and his associates want to denigrate the Whitehead claim and to beat down whoever questions the Wright legacy,” said Susan Brinchman, whose late father, William O’Dwyer, wrote the book “History by Contract,” which exposed the contract between the Smithsonian and the Wright family.

The contract, still in effect, states the museum and its affiliates can only recognize the Wright Flyer as the first powered heavier-than-air aircraft. If this recognition isn’t made, the revered Wright Flyer on display in the Smithsonian’s Air & Space Museum could revert to the family

“He didn’t do any primary source research at all,” Brinchman said. “It’s poorly researched. He could have never come up with that conclusion if he looked into it.”

John Brown — who’s website is www.gustave-whitehead.com — agreed.

“David McCullough has come to his conclusion about Whitehead without having done research, because if he did look into it, he would have come to the same conclusions that I did.”

Brown notes that McCullough’s statement on Whitehead was made without a reference to any original source material.

“You can’t just say something without having a basis in fact for saying it,” Brown said.

While no known photos of Whitehead’s flight exist, according to an article in the Bridgeport Herald on Aug. 14, 1901, Whitehead kept his No. 21 airborne for about a half-mile and up to an altitude of about 40 feet.

The Wright brothers’ far more documented flight was considerably shorter and took place Dec. 17, 1903, in Kitty Hawk, N.C.

Andy Kosch, the Platt Technical High School teacher who built and flew a replica of the Whitehead flyer, said the people who maintain Whitehead never flew might want to take a look at his airship.

“The craft just leapt off the ground — it just jumped in the air,” he said of his three successful flights of a Whitehead flyer reproduction that were made in December 1986. “I can’t say the same for the reproductions of the Wright flyer, and I’m just a little disappointed that someone with the credentials that he (McCullough) has didn’t look into it a little more.”

The Wright stuff

Still, the purpose of “The Wright Brothers,” McCullough said, is to tell the story of two “truly great” Americans, rather than to delve into the thorny matter of who flew first.

It might come as a surprise to many that the brothers never married and by all accounts never even had any sweethearts. They also lived for most of their lives with their sister, Katherine, at 7 Hawthorne St. in Dayton, Ohio.

“It was odd, and it was odd in those days, too, although less so than now,” McCullough said. “They were `home boys,’ as it were, and they had their work and their objective and that for them was their purpose of life.”

They also had very little money, plowing just about all they made from their bicycle business into their flight experiments.

McCullough reveals that Wilbur, while still a teenager, was struck in the mouth during a hockey game. The man wielding the stick, Oliver Crook Haugh, was executed in 1906 for the murder of his mother, father and brother, and he was implicated in several other homicides.

The incident changed Wilbur’s life.

The day before he had hopes of going to Yale, but getting his front teeth knocked out erased those dreams. He became withdrawn and absorbed in his work.

As cruel as Haugh may have been that day on the frozen pond, McCullough said Haugh, the neighborhood bully, was quite likely nearly insane from the cocaine he was medicating himself with to ease the pain of his rotting teeth.

“Most of us today don’t know what a real toothache is like,” the author said in defense of him.

Aviation dodo bird

McCullough got some support for his Whitehead stance from Lawrence Goldstone, whose book, “Birdmen: The Wright Brothers, Glenn Curtiss and the Battle to Control the Skies” also was released in recent weeks.

“Here’s the deal with Whitehead — maybe he flew and maybe he didn’t,” said Goldstone. “If you look at the Whitehead flyer, the wings are set in a severe dihedral, which means that turning would be very difficult and it would be highly susceptible to wind.”

Goldstone doesn’t mention Whitehead, even though “Birdmen” deals with the early days of flight.

“To people like Tom Crouch at the Smithsonian, you mention Whitehead and it’s sacrilege,” he said. “But to me, the Whitehead flyer was like the Neanderthals — an evolutionary dead-end.”